Friday, December 29, 2006

Adult children's responsibilities for elderly parents

"When it comes to a child's legal duties to a parent, the courts are scarily unclear" notes a recent NOW Magazine article .

When you review articles and studies on the challenges facing the elderly in our Canadian society the emphasis is almost always on assuring that the elderly are treated with respect, maintain the ability to choose their own care as long as they are capable and are free from abuse by family or caregivers. A worthy goal that we all support.

But what obligations and rights do the adult children have when elderly parents assert their independence to live alone in unsafe conditions when their physical and mental capacities are diminished? In my own experience, the adult children are placed very much between a rock and a hard place. They feel the responsibility to preserve their parents' health, safety and protection from predatory opportunists but lack any power to make decisions to protect their parents from harm. It is a life filled with stress and worry for the adult child, interspersed with unpredictable and disruptive crises.

No matter what relationship may or may not exist with the parent, nor physical proximity to the parent, the expectation of the health care network will be that the adult child will provide the support to prop up what may be a silly and dangerous choice by your aging parent to live at home. This can translate into a daily barrage of phone calls from all levels of health care support services, concerned neighbours, volunteer visitors and others. What rights do adult children have to say, "this situation is no longer supportable? It is unsafe for you and outside of my ability to sustain for you?" "It is time for you to move to a supported living environment?"

Absolutely none.

Neighbours and community supports may be over-taxed and concerned for your parent and advise that the elderly person be housed in a supportive environment. However the adult child is powerless to force this choice on the elderly person and must cope the best way they can.

Even when the hospital or caregivers decide that your elderly parent is unable to make appropriate choices for their accommodation, this is open to legal challenge by the elderly person and in my own experience, an elderly person who was unable to recognize their grandchild or remember what they had for lunch that day, or where they were, was able to be declared competent to make their own decisions by a legal panel.

Simply put, the adult child finds themself in a position where they are possibly legally obligated to assure the safety of their elderly parent but prevented from making any rational decisions to assure that safety. The result is a nerve-racking existence in which one waits for the next call about a debilitating fall, or dealing with fallout from the signing of some contract with a confidence artist, or phone calls from distraught neighbours who are concerned or aggravated by bizarre behaviour.

When leaving elderly parents to their own devices is viewed as abandonment, coercing them into supportive housing is viewed as usurping their rights, and community supports fail to meet the need, the adult child is left with a situation in which the only "right" option is to give up their own life and career to nurse the elderly parent. This is suggested by health care professionals at a surprising rate and women who assert their right to maintain a career in mid-life rather than nurse their elderly mother can expect to face at least some negative comments and guilt-tripping from their parents support network.

In a society in which we no longer demand that mothers interupt their lives to be fulltime caregivers to children, why are we placing adult children--usually middle-aged women-- in this situation, understanding that some elderly parents may live miles away from their adult children's communities and even have been estranged for years? Not all families are happy ones and not all adult children wish to care for parents that they may have no fond memories of.

In my view responsibility has to equal authority. If an elderly parent has the authority to make a decision to remain in their own home then responsibility for making that situation work has to remain with them. If an adult child is increasingly given responsibility to support the parent in the home, then authority should be ceded to that caregiver to enable them to make the decision to change the elderly parent's living situation when necessary.

The elderly person should have the authority to make decisions for themselves but not to impose those decisions in ways that adversely affect the lives, marriages and careers of their adult children, sometimes for several years of disruption.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bottled Water Boycott

I have been viewing with interest the development of a broadbased boycott of bottled water. When the United Church of Canada announced their endorsement of a boycott of bottled water, the issue hit the mainstream in Canada.

I find this a very heartening sign in several ways. First it signals that there are growing numbers of people who believe that some of the basics of life really should not have a price tag. Secondly it signals once again a growing alignment of the religious Left with the political Left, a coalition that is necessary to gain the broadbased support to challenge the populist support of the far Right.

Lastly, this issue is a very sophisticated one to have the populist appeal that it does. It is commonly taught in political campaign schools that the vast majority of the public cannot hold two ideas in their minds at the same time so political arguments cannot pose complex chains of logic...despite most political issues requiring two or more steps. Usually analysis of election results show that people have bought very simple arguments such as, "It's time for change", "Throw the bums out, they're crooked", or "Let's give them another chance" and tapping into those simple powerful messages is the way to win elections.

But let's look at the messaging in the bottled water boycott.

1. When I drink bottled water, I care less about the safety of tap water.
2. If everyone cares less about the safety of tap water, it may decline in quality.
3. If it declines in quality those who cannot afford bottled water will get sick from tap water.
4. Therefore bottled water is immoral, unethical and I will not buy it.

Fully four steps of political reasoning involved in this issue. Wow! And it is gaining momentum. We should all be encouraged.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

David Earle Wins Walter Carsen Prize

Something is going seriously RIGHT at Canada Council for a change!

This year's winner of the Walter Carsen Prize for lifetime achievement in the Arts is veteran choreographer, David Earle.

David is a brilliant choreographer and someone who has contributed so much to the education of young dancers also. But it is amazing in that he is an iconoclast who has followed his own path and practiced his craft largely outside of the metropolitan Toronto area where his career began. He took himself out of that melieu many years ago and has achieved as a result a unique artistic vision that is true to his soulful intelligent perceptions, uninfluenced by the passing fads of the cluttered, noisy big city arts scene. DanceTheatre David Earle is in residence in Guelph Ontario.

It's interesting that last year's winner was R. Murray Schafer, another brilliant artist who has most often chosen to work in smaller centres. Once in conversation with Murray, (I don't know whether he's written this thought down anywhere) he said that Canada has an erroneous idea that original art is usually generated in large metropolitan areas but historically that's not been the case. It is more often the case that the more isolated artist makes breakthroughs when they are free from constant influences of the artistic conventions of the day and pressures to conformity.

I think that the wonderful thing about the concentration of the arts in large cities is that it promotes excellence of practice through increased opportunities of artists to perform and present their work and through access to mentors and exemplars of excellence. But it does not usually give rise to great individuality.

Occasionally the arts world has been quite critical of R. Murray Schafer and David Earle. They've followed their artistic visions in directions that some arts critics have positively reviled. But looking at lifetime achievement arguably the most prestigious panel in the land has had the guts to say twice now that the outsider has contributed more to the course of Canada's artistic life than any number of conformists. Good for them and congratulations, David. You are truly the god of the dance!

New idea in the fight against false self-employment

Here's a new strategy for activists who want to fight back against this employment problem in Canada.

When businesses represent workers as self-employed when they meet all the requirements of employees, who should know better? Who should advise the employer that they are taking financial risks? Who is charged with the responsibility for ensuring that companies don't get socked with unexpected costs like paying back EI and CPP for several workers?

If your past or present deadbeat employer retains an accountant or has an accountant on their Board of Directors, why not file a complaint to that professional association. These individuals are supposed to be the financial watchdogs for the company's who employ them or the organizations that ask them to sit on their board of directors. If enough accountants are made the subject of complaints on this issue, perhaps the whole profession will wake up and treat this seriously.

If your company employs a CA find your provincial Chartered Accounting organization by visiting The Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants or if your company employs a CGA visit The Certified General Accountants of Canada to find your provincial association and complaints process.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Has a Canadian employer deprived you of contributions to EI and CPP?

If you've been a victim of the growing problem of false self-employment there IS something you can do.

While legitimate self-employment has some benefits for workers, too many vulnerable Canadian workers are being deprived of access to EI benefits when their jobs end and also deprived of employer contributions to their CPP making affected workers poorer when they retire.

When this happened to me I was very discouraged to find very little information available to help me. When I did find out that I could ask CRA (Canada Revenue Agency) for a determination of employment status, I was still discouraged by reports that this process could take 1 or 2 years before making its way through the bureaucracy.

I was angry. My employer was a non-profit, charitable organization supposedly concerned with social justice yet was treating employees inequitably and additionally ripping off the social safety net of the country. After friendly persuasion and patience got me nowhere, I decided to take action. I had been vocal about the inappropriateness of a staff member being paid as a self-employed contractor for some months without any notice being paid.

When I presented my employer with "Employed or Self-Employed a document from CRA, I succeeded in having my employer contributions started but the employer was still resistent to paying back contributions owing. I followed up by filing the appropriate CRA form to request an employment status ruling. So I am happy to report that my case was settled in a mere one month with the employer required to pay back CPP and EI payments.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bubble Battle in Toronto

NewMindSpace, self-described purveyors of "cultural interventions and urban bliss dissemination, " brought their latest playful event to urban spaces in Toronto on the afternoon of July 2 with Bubble Battle, a flash mob of bubble blowers of all ages who filled the air at Queen and Bay with bubbles small, large, round, elongated. . . and mostly plentiful. The bubblers arrived on foot, via Subway and in small bicycle herds, sporting a collection of bubbling gear that was worthy of a Doctor Seuss book.

In Toronto these days, Queen Street is the happening place for artists and the alternative culture. It's a far cry from the staid, upscale galleries and cafes of Yorkville. These artists are alive and creating. They haven't been stuffed and mounted for display yet.

Bay Street on the other hand is the financial main thoroughfare of the city. A street of grey towers with hardly even a cafe along its downtown expanse to break the gloom.

So perhaps it was fitting that Toronto's "Bubble Battle" took place at the intersection of Queen and Bay. To mean, it was the only explanation of the word "battle" since certainly no one was battling anyone in the festive crowd that assembled. The bubbles and the mood of the assembled masses were a great antidote to the greyness of the city.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ornstein Report : Ethno-Racial Groups in Toronto, 1971-2001: A Demographic and Socio-Economic Profile--Laidlaw Panel Discussion April 25,2006

On April 25, 2006 the Laidlaw Foundation presented a forum at Innis Town Hall focusing on the findings of Dr. Michael Ornstein published in his report: Ethno-Racial Groups in Toronto, 1971-2001: A Demographic and Socio-Economic Profile, conducted and published by the Institute for Social Research at York University.

I really appreciated the way Ornstein addressed various myths and surmises that even people of great good will might have about the difficulties faced by both visible minorities and immigrants in Toronto. And it was great to hear the distinction made by panel participants between the problems of immigrants and the problems faced by visible minorities--where those problems are shared and where they are separate issues. Commentators were correct that the waters get muddied where these issues are confused.

Dr. Ornstein’s report is available for download on the Institute for Social Research web site: . Panelists discussing Dr. Ornstein’s findings and responding to audience questions were: Rick Eagan (St. Christopher House and the MISSWA project), Debbie Douglas (Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants) and Amanuel Melles (United Way of Greater Toronto).

Ornstein remarked that the role of social research statistics are to “provoke, intimidate and encourage” which he elaborated to suggest that such research provokes discussion of solutions, intimidates those who would promulgate myths and undermine positive initiatives and encourages community-builders.

For the most part the report and panel presentations were well-received by audience members, although one member of the audience criticized the report and presentation in not examining the roots of white privilege sufficiently and suggested that certain initiatives were racist in their intention and/or results. In this regard the audience member named the Safe Schools Initiative as unfairly excluding black students from school. Hmm. Since all students have an equal right to be free from bullying in their schools, this lone commentator’s remarks seemed rather off-base and out of step with the positive community-building spirit of the forum and subsequent efforts likely to gain momentum through the Ornstein report. Other commentators congratulated Ornstein on exposing the myth that the difficulties faced by visible minorities in Toronto were solely those of settlement due to recent immigration.

Congratulations to the Laidlaw Foundation on funding this research and making the public panel discussion possible.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Spirituality and Politics of the Left

I was a bit boggled by some comments in a recent article in The Toronto Star Faith in the Left . The Star reported that some New Democrats such as Tarek Fatah were suggesting that they might leave the party over recent initiatives to reconcile the party with those of us in the religious Left.

One is left wondering if Fatah, or others disturbed by recent initiatives in the NDP to reach out to the Religious Left have ever read the famous "New Jerusalem" speech of Tommy Douglas or understand the deep underpinnings of faith that were at the roots of democratic socialism in Canada? Does the term "Social Gospel" ring any bells of memory in the Party these days?

Beyond this particular issue, I was saddened by the all-too-typical narrowness of vision. For a party that espouses inclusivity, equality, and tolerance, the NDP can be remarkably intolerant a lot of the time. It seems to this New Democrat that if we keep throwing people out because they are "Too Left" like the Waffle or more recently, Barry Wiesleder& friends, or because they advocated strategic voting like Buzz Hargrove, . . . or whatever sin of the month. . . and God (if you'll excuse the expression) help us if you seem like could win an election because that probably means that you smell like a Liberal. . .so you should certainly be thrown out. AND in addition to this habit of throwing people out, other New Democrats keep storming out of the party voluntarily because they don't agree with all policy directions, we'll be left with a mighty small party.

Save on conventions, hold them in a phone booth.

Maybe that's alright. Maybe the Left needs a new beginning.

What is it with the current state of Left Wing politics in Canada that we can't establish one big tent that we can all feel comfortable under?

I'm reminded of the advertisement from the United Church of Christ that showed people being ejected from traditional churches. Are there those in the NDP that would similarly like to exclude people on the basis of religious faith? Is there a finger on the ejector button? Or are we only to be allowed in as second-class citizens and asked to park our religion at the door? That would be too bad, because leaders like Tommy Douglas and Martin Luther King arose BECAUSE of their faith and not despite it.

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Saturday, April 08, 2006


Maybe because yesterday was my birthday I'm thinking about the ageism that I've been encountering in recent years.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission asks the following:

Have you ever encountered questions, such as…

"Do you really think you could handle this job? You know it takes a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Besides, we are looking for someone with career potential."

"You don't need this training program. At your age, what would the benefit be?"

"Well, you are getting on. What do you expect at your age?"

When I read this I had to say, "Oh wow, have I!" About as soon as I turned 50 I began to hear exactly those remarks from some employers.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission tells us that "Such comments reflect ageism -- an attitude that makes assumptions about older persons and their abilities and puts labels on them. Ageism is also a tendency to view and design society on the basis that everyone is young. Age discrimination is a consequence of ageist attitudes."

I love the language about a tendency to design society on the basis that everyone is young. I remember a conversation that I had once with a younger co-worker who was asserting quite vehemently that a particular activity she was coordinating would suffer if older adults were included with younger adults--because it would be "less fun", the older adults would "feel uncomfortable" and be "less adaptable" and other generalizations. Boy, does that run contrary to my own real life experience. From the time I was a teen myself, some of my best times and growthful experiences have been obtained participating in groups with a healthy mix of ages. No generation is without its fun and adaptable members and no generation has cornered the market on sourpusses either!

It's worth repeating, "Ageism is also a tendency to view and design society on the basis that everyone is young". Oh, that makes me feel so sad, because I've always loved the company of the very young and the very old in my life. Yet I recognize that in the media, in advertising, in the structure of many activities we create this false generational rift. And the less time we spend with people of other age groups the vaster our ignorance and prejudice becomes.

One of the places where I most run into ageist assumptions is in the area of technological literacy. I often find employers and others making inaccurate assumptions about my computer savey. When they become aware that I am very computer literate, surprise is expressed. I've been complimented on being a "life-long learner" as though normal computer literacy in the workplace is unusual for a 50-something worker.

Again, my own experience is just the opposite. Those of us that came into the workforce around the same time as computers or just before, had to struggle with DOS, write batch files, work in word processing programs using on-screen codes that were the pre-cursors of html, and have a hands-on knowledge of our computer's system configuration. With this experience, we are well-positioned to trouble-shoot problems, learn and understand html code, and design and work with databases. By contrast I have trained a number of young workers whose sole computer experience has been gameplaying, surfing the Internet, and email. While those young workers who have specific business training generally come to the workplace well prepared to use business applications, many employers hire young workers from other programs of study assuming computer knowledge that is simply not there. Often it is those of us who have been in the workplace for some time who train these workers to mailmerge, make mailing labels and to use desktop publishing programs.

I have been told that mature students entering the community college system in Ontario, are more likely to be exempted from an intro computer course on the basis of their scores on a test of computer knowledge than students coming to community college directly from high school. This does not surprise me although it flies in the face of the myth that any given 12 year old is more computer literate than any given 50 year old.

So I found it thought-provoking to read the information sheet located on the Ontario Human Rights Commission's website. There's a printable pdf version of the sheet available--suitable for posting in any workplace. Worried that posting such a sheet might be unwelcome in your workplace? Do you really want to work for an employer who discriminates on the basis of age and is blind to the strengths of older workers?

Let's post this sheet broadly about the land and make sure that everyone knows that ageist remarks aren't just tasteless and baseless--they are a violation of Ontario's Human Rights Code.

Employed or self-employed? False-self employment is a growing poverty and equity issue for women workers.

Asked recently by the LEAF National Committee to complete a survey that included a recommendation of an issue warranting study by this national organization working in the area of women's legal issues, I suggested the issue of false self-employment. This is a growing issue for workers, affecting far more women workers than men, and one where women have found it difficult to obtain reliable information.

In Social Determinants Of Health: Canadian Perspectives, published by Canadian Scholars' Press in 2004, Dianne-Gabrielle Tremblay's analysed the effect of globalization upon employment security.

She looks at the "new boundaryless careers" — no longer based on a vertical promotion ladder but instead nomadic with horizontal movement and new forms of organization and collaboration: team work, networks and virtual communities.

While this flexibility may be positive for certain sectors, she writes, it entails "precariousness, lack of stability and the lack of a career for others" as well as "`false' self-employment, that is those who are dependent on one or more order-givers."

The whole concept of "job security" is in doubt, she suggests, and this is a major factor in health and well-being. Furthermore, she notes, "This is especially the case among Canadian women."

In the same year, 2004, Dr. Karen Hughes, author of Female Enterprise in the New Economy published by University of Toronto Press presented to the Canadian Standing Committee on the Status of Women. She identified false self-employment as a growing problem in which workers had neither the flexibility and empowerment of true self-employment nor the security and benefits of an employee entitled to the protection of Employment Insurance and CPP contributions. And when women have worked under a false self-employment arrangement and lose their jobs or retire, they are poorer than those women who had an employer who contributed to EI and CPP as required. So this really is an issue affecting women's economic health and equity in our society.

I'm surprised that two years later, it is hard to find a lot of information about false self-employment while it is a practice that continues to grow in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

While more than half of self-employed workers report that they are involuntarily self-employed and would prefer employment, it's fair to note that true self-employment works well for a lot of women. They are able to set their own hours, accept as many or as few jobs as they like, work flextime, work from home in some cases, while they are able to take appropriate tax deductions for their business expenses: tools, office, car and travel costs. Taking these deductions, they can invest in their own RRSP plan and also build savings to offset periods of shortage of work. This is a viable work choice for these workers.

How does false self-employment differ from this scenario? False self-employment occurs when the employee answers a job ad and the employer says, "you understand this is contract work?". This can be confusing. Many prospective employees might think that this only refers to the time period of the contract. That this is shortterm work. However the employer will then use meaningless codewords like "service agreement". What the employee is being told--whether they understand it or not--is that if hired they will be expected to perform like an employee (work regular hours in the employer's place of business, use company equipment, not accept work from other employers, be subject to company rules and evaluation procedures, etc.) BUT they will not have income tax deducted from their paycheque, no EI benefits will be paid on their behalf, and no CPP contributions will be made.

The worker may be misinformed that this is a legal practice or convinced that "everyone is doing it" in a particular business sector. The worker may be misinformed by the employer about the way that a lack of employee status could be of benefit to the worker--strategies that actually involve tax fraud and liability for the worker.

The employer engaging in this employment practice is breaking Canadian tax law, plain and simple.

The pamphlet that outlines the difference between an employee and the self-employed is available for download here. In brief summary: if you work more than 50% of your paid work hours in the employers' premises, if you use their tools, if you report to a boss, if you can't accept other contracts, if you can't determine your own hours of work, if you are paid a wage rather than taking profits from your business, if you can't hire someone else to do your job for you (sub-contract) then--you are most-likely an employee under law. If you are a Canadian worker and believe that you are an employee but your employer is classifying you as self-employed to avoid paying benefits you can file a form to request that Canada Revenue conduct an investigation to determine your employment status.

Who are the employers who are engaging in this shoddy practice--dodging paying their fair share towards the social safety net in our society? It's surprising but a number of non-profits and arts organizations supported in a large part by government grants are among the worst offenders. There seems to be a mindset there that because their cause is so important, it's okay to treat workers in a cavalier fashion, and that any worker who wants even the minimal protection afforded Canadian workers is somehow selfish and less-dedicated to whatever "cause" the organization supports. Or, in some cases, the organization's Board of Directors has a misguided notion that they will be less financially responsible if they avoid having an employer relationship with a lone administrator or general manager of a small non-profit. Boards may believe that they have less financial risk by mis-representing the employment relationship. Sometimes there is a belief that it will be easier to terminate a worker if unsatisfactory or if a grant ends.

But what's the truth?

First, organizations who espouse high ethical principles should start with their own workers and contribute to the overall health of society just on principal. But pragmatically, when organizations or companies misrepresent the employment status of workers they are not helping themselves but rather exposing themselves to financial risks. If it is found that a worker's status has been represented, the employer can be forced to pay both the employee and employer's share of all remittances owed to the Receiver General for the employment period in dispute. Rather than skinting the government and saving money, the employer may have to pay double. In addition, any action the employer takes that may be in violation of provincial labour law can be liable to penalty if the Employment Standards branch rules that the worker's status was that of an employee under law. Companies have to ask themselves whether fooling some workers some of the time into believing that they have no rights if they sign a self-employed contract (while working as employees) is worth the financial risks, potential bad publicity and plain bad karma.

But what if the worker wants to represent their work as self-employed?

Certainly it might be very tempting for low-income earners to want to avoid paying their share of income tax and benefit contributions. But is it fair of employers to lure gullible, cash-strapped and ill-informed workers into a dangerous deception? If these workers fail to pay taxes at all, hoping to slip under the radar, they are liable to huge fines and back taxes at a future time. If the worker misrepresents themselves as self-employed and claims self-employed deductions such as computer, office supplies, home office and car expenses, they will have a huge problem supporting these deductions when it becomes clear that they spent their full work day in the employer's premises, using the employer's equipment. The worker is forced to lie through their teeth and take all the risks of that in order to gain the benefits of the self-employed status that the employer has falsely assigned to them. Not only is the employer lying but the worker is tempted, even coached by some employers, to lie in order to avoid a crushing tax bill. Should the worker refuse to lie, pay their taxes as the employed person that they were under the definition of Revenue Canada--while being unable to produce a T-4 slip as required--alarm bells will ring and once again the employers who thought to avoid responsibility, cost and make their lives simpler--will find their lives suddenly very complicated.

I'd like to see LEAF and other women's and workers' rights organization make more information available on this subject and where warranted take employers to court. I see education as key because I believe that both employers and workers are very misinformed on this issue. When government-supported non-profits engage in this practice it seems doubly wrong. It's a case of biting the hand that feeds you. Provincial and federal governments are losing money for social programs when workers are forced into false self-employment. I'd like to see policies in place that require the re-payment of government grants by organizations who avoid their financial responsibilities to workers. I'd also like to see clear employment protections in place for workers who whistle-blow on employers engaged in employing workers while not affording them their legally required employment benefits.

I'd welcome emails from anyone facing this situation and I am considering ways of taking this issue forward politically. If there is any group out there already doing this, I'd like to know about it!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Rabbi Michael Lerner speaks in Toronto

Last night, April 4, at Innis Town Hall at the University of Toronto, Rabbi Michael Lerner--author of The Left Hand of God: taking back our country from the religious Right—tackled a question a lot of us on the political Left ask from time to time. Why do working class people so often vote against their own self-interest? But being American, Lerner no longer speaks of the working class and so he asked the question about an ill-defined “middle class”.

It was an opening that set the tone for the evening. The questions that Lerner tackled in his well-reasoned lecture were of global perspective, but his particular focus and experience were clearly American.

At the root of political dissatisfaction, he argued, is a spiritual crisis that affect our whole western society. One of the symptons is that people feel their friendships and relationships are becoming "thinner" and more selfish. People are taught to “network” instead of forming real friendships-- to only give what they can expect to get back. The broad acceptance that this is the way the world works leads to individual cynicism about the quality of friendship and to great loneliness. Lerner's research shows that people yearn to be valued and loved for themselves and their deeper qualities.

Meanwhile romantic relationships exist in what Lerner refers to as the “dating Supermarket” in which individuals taste new partners for what adventures in experience they might bring. Marriage commitments are based, he says, on a judgment call about who will meet the most needs out of the pool of all possibly obtainable partners. Both partners realize they could be beat out by future competition. This leads to huge insecurity and the older, poorer, and less attractive the individual the higher the insecurity factor.

In the work world, employees feel that they are disposable cogs in the wheel. While people long for more meaningful work, the unions tend to only see and hear the demand for higher wages. When working people cannot find an intrinsic sense of value in their work, they can only push for higher wages to try to buy some time in the future to explore more meaningful things in life.

The Religious Right, Lerner argues, has sensed this spiritual hunger and spoken directly to those that feel de-valued in our society. Lerner finds a surprising similarity in their message to that of the Women’s Movement of the 60’s. The Women's Movement in speaking to women’s anger about being de-valued told women, “you’re not the problem. It is Society that is lacking the proper values and attitudes.” In like fashion, the Religious Right is saying to the over-worked and under-valued working class, “you’re not the problem. You’re not a failure. It is society that has the wrong values.” And while the Left would agree that working people are not the problem and society has the wrong values, the Religious Right goes on to blame this lack of human values on various scapegoats--an "other" that they can de-mean. In the USA, the “demeaned other” has included: blacks, gays, feminists and, with growing support and confidence has now expanded to "all liberals." All that it takes is to pin the “selfish” label on the demeaned group, to make them appear to be a part of the “me-first” spiritual crisis that has led so many individuals to feel rootless and invisible. At the same time the Right is supporting supremely selfish actions domestically and internationally.

How do they keep getting away with this clear contradiction?

In large part, Lerner argues, because the Left does not see the pain of the spiritual crisis. And the Right steps into that void. Here, Lerner's arguments resonated with the view articulated in the 2004 bestselling book, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank . But in addition to not reaching out to the spiritual crisis in America, Lerner, states that the Left compounds their error by turning off people of faith. Any spiritual talk turns a lot of Left-wingers off. They hear it as some sort of New Age mush without intellectual rigor, or they mistake it for a form of Right Wing fundamentalism. And on top of the Left’s misunderstanding of individuals with a spiritual mindset, Lerner notes that the Left has a tendency to be religiophobic to the point of conveying to religious people that they can only be accepted into Left-wing political organization if they “park their spirituality at the door.” And it would appear that he hit a nerve of common experience in the Toronto audience as there was an exclamation of recognition and an outburst of “yes(!!)” as he made this observation.

Lerner is involved in organizing a political movementsThe Network of Spiritual Progressives and was partly in town hoping to recruit more members into this fold. He saw the goal of his organization as focused on two issues: 1) Calling and exposing the misuse of God by the religious Right to justify their war-mongering and selfish agenda, and 2) Challenging the religiophobic views of the traditional Left.

On the last point, Lerner suggested that even self-interest ought to lead the Left to moderate its critical and belittling attitude towards individuals with religious beliefs as he noted that the majority of Americans are believers. But, in turning once again to the model of the Women’s Movement, he suggested that it is not going to be enough for religious people to be merely “tolerated” in Left political organizations. Just as women educated those political movements that they brought skills and a perspective that was unique and valuable to the Left, so religious individuals bring a valuable perspective. Lerner remarked that the Left was never stronger in the US than when it had great religious leaders like Martin Luther King, jr. as key spokespeople. I wanted to yell out, “Tommy Douglas in Canada!” And I wish I had because in the midst of a great, thought-provoking speech I kept wishing for more of an informed nod to the Canadian experience and--as a member of the traditional religious Left—more of an informed look at the experience of existing religious Left organizations such as the Catholic Worker Movement, Christian Peacekeepers, the Society of Friends (Quakers), or as one young women in the audience requested, a look at the Unitarian experience. The response to this question, that involved some very specific US experience with the leadership of some Protestant religions seemed hugely off-base to much of the puzzled Canadian audience. Not only did Lerner not address the question about what the Unitarians could do differently to communicate their political message better, he seemed unaware of their strong political stand in Canada—and the fact that Unitarians are neither Protestant or Christian in any narrow sense.

In all a useful and thought-provoking lecture and I left with the book in hand. However, on the basis of this lecture, I feel that if Lerner’s movement is to travel outside of the USA, there is going to have to be more informed understanding of the history, political challenges and strengths of the international community. But perhaps even more, Lerner and his movement, need to understand, include and ally themselves with those of us in the religious Left who are part of existing movements with long traditions—some stretching back to post-Reformation traditions. But certainly his main message was in harmony with a lot of us in attendance, a lot of pamphlets giving information on joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives were picked up at the event. Perhaps Toronto will give its own multi-cultural, multi-faith perspective to what is--at core--a great idea whose time is past-due.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

In the Company of Women

This past week I actually managed to get myself to a LEAF (Women's Legal Education and Action Fund) Toronto meeting after months of schedule conflicts that have prevented me from getting there and helping push along the work of this organization that has been key to so many important court decisions and educational initiatives impacting on the rights of Canadian women.

It was phenomenal to be once again in the company of a group of social-activist, intelligent and yes despite the popular misconception that feminists have no sense of humour. . . funny women.

Ideas flew fast and furious. (And NO, right-wing, anti-equity readers I'm not going to tell you what those ideas were, so you can leave now.)

I probably was perceived as a bit of a babble-head but it had just been SO LONG since I'd been in the midst of like-minded women. (Apologies for babbling to all you LEAFERS reading this.)

Our chairperson had a small baby so I'm sure that babykins thought that this group of women surrounded him with the sole purpose of a baby-admiration society. He was more interested in peek-a-boo and party than nursing, that's for sure! It was a multi-tasking women's ballet of baby play, supper assembly, serious social action and occasional cat-herding (real cats) as family cats stalked the buffet table lasagne.

Ah, it was an organizing meeting such as only feminists cook up. It was productive, it was fun and I felt like.. . . "I'm HOME!!"

Monday, March 20, 2006

Michael Franti: I Know I'm not Alone

Michael Franti's journey to the Middle East is recorded in the film I Know I'm Not Alone . His trip to play some music, chat to some people, jam with other musicians and see for himself what's happenin' seems like such an ordinary thing for an artist to do. However when it is the war zones of Iraq and the Gaza strip that he is touring to, the normalcy of many of his encounters seem abnormal. Yet in crossing the ocean and the barriers of war it seems that he shows the absurdity and unnecessary nature of war.

He makes it seem so easy, just take the step, reach out to individual human beings--victims of war and agressors-- and make peace happen in the world.

I wiewed the film tonight at the Friends Meeting House in Toronto with some people from other peace groups. Members of Christian Peacemaker teams were there also, poignantly mourning the loss of Tom Fox in Iraq. The fact that peacemaking could also be very personally dangerous was very much in the room with the small group of about 30 gathered around the TV monitor. The film was introduced by a woman who had been in Iraq in 2004 with CPT. She struck a note that was harmonious with the film when she said that she never felt more unsafe than at times when she was near people with guns. She gave an example of travelling for a time with a NY Times reporter to report on CPT work there. The NY Times provided armed guards, a convoy of armed vehicles and everyone wore flak jackets. The site of the group travelling provoked hostile reactions and looks from many people as they travelled. Going about Iraq unarmed felt much, much safer.

I left the film wondering if a critical mass of people like Franti really could make a difference by refusing to be frightened of reaching out to those we've been told we should fear. I was reminded of other symbolic acts of peace that I had witnessed in my life, some even by people I was privileged to know. I don't know if it will make a difference but it seems like the only thing that one can do. I hope Franti is right--that he is not alone.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bloom--Post Apocalyptic Mystery and Madness

In the Theatre Centre, Queen and Dovercourt, Toronto until March 19, 2006

Thanks to the generosity of our colleagues at War Child Canada I was able to attend this play with a powerful socially relevant piece of theatre from a highly professional Canadian stage company.

Here's my thoughts.

In a series of crisp vignettes, playwright Guillermo Vedecchia presents us with a story that is the dramatic equivalent of a series of black and white jumbled snap shots that have fallen willy-nilly from a shoe box. The faces and expressions jump out at us in sharp relief but there are gaps in the story, the timeline is jumbled and occasionally the focus is a little off. Indeed the accidental discovery of a few old photos begins the play's main conversation.

Presented by the Modern Times Stage Company, the play is set in some wartorn near future. It would appear that the planet, the crops and many of the people are sterile. Sterility, planting and birth, natural and unnatural become recurring images.

Alone, in a house in no man's land at the edge of a still-waging war, an old nearly blind man and a mysterious boy talk, play, joke, and argue. As the old man's sight fails, his inner sight sharpens to reveal ghosts of his past and we learn that he has seen the other side of war as a soldier. Andrew Scorer, as the old man, Gerontion, is compelling. At times his face reminds one of Munch's "Scream". When he proclaims that man is "an accident, a meat machine" he invokes the machine-like repetition of his own existence.

At various points in the play a strange character who is variously a waiter, a grave digger, seems to act as the voice of Fate or historical accident. At one point this character circulates intolling "Time, time, time". Is he telling the audience that time is ticking by even in the present and they must act soon to avert this dark future? I think so yes. But he is also speaking to the action in the play, informing us that these vignettes are episodes in disjointed time viewed through the lens of individual memory, trauma and viewpoint.

As the strange story unfolds in brief, stark, snapshots flashing out of the blackout a strange redemptive journey through memory unfolds. The conclusion with a sudden rainstorm would have underscored depression in another play, but here it is a ray of hope that seeds might sprout again and life begin anew. The ending is ambiguous because we have grown to distrust fertility. We leave the theatre knowing that the life cycle has renewed but will it be life as we know it?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Amnesty communicates with style and wit

I love the internet when it communicates important messages with style, wit and all the bells and whistles of the medium. This video from Amnesty International entertains, informs and horrifies and has an important message but its send up of tele-shopping is also hilarious!

Friday, March 03, 2006

blogging about blogging

These days to post about my life would be to blog about blogging as I have mainly been filling my idle hours working on the PrashArt blog at

I thought I would join the 43 Things Website to help motivate me to do more with my life, get more organized. This site allows you to set up to 43 things you want to do, cheer others on with the same goals and give little status reports, send reminder messages.

Not being that ambitious I could only think of 6 things. What an underachiever!

My big accomplishment in the "play my cello" goal was getting the case open.
At that point, the cello, opened for the first time in ages in the dry winter air promptly developed a crack, thereby allowing me to procrastinate for several more months until I get organized to take it in to get fixed. So it wasn't a total loss.

After awhile I wondered why I hadn't gotten any of the motivational messages I'd set up for myself. But you see, my computer thought that these messages were spam. So I'd succeeded in spamming myself also.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


One of the roses in my life currently is artist Prashant Miranda. Prashant volunteers his time and talent for World Literacy and has become a friend. He's currently in India where he has been doing some work with literacy programs there and also been doing some spiritual seeking of his own. From time to time he's been emailing us some pages from his sketchbook.

On his arrival in Varanasi he wrote about the huge moon outside his window, reflected in the Ganges.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Here from There

In the picture on the right here are some of the littlest protestors. Their signs proclaim their "Right to Play"

This photo was taken at International Children's Day celebrations in Varanasi India. In such a world it seems hard to justify the time to blog.

Whenever anyone would talk to me about their blogs, they'd often talk about it as a way of living an examined life and a way of making sense of the past by constructing some sort of linear narrative about their life.

Makes sense. Perhaps a worthy goal but . . . Why did that make me feel tired?

I guess when you are at or past the halfway point of a lifespan as I am, you really want to live in the NOW more. You also want to look ahead and plan the best use of the future. Enough of looking back already.

Besides how much of life is linear?

Not my life. It has been one of flying off madly in all directions or gently falling from place to place in the currents of change and happenstance.

I am currently working for an organization called World Literacy of Canada. The picture above was taken at one of our programs in India. It's a bit of a departure after having worked in the Arts exclusively for the past decade. But on the whole I am feeling more myself these days. It was one of those falling backwards by mistake into something that works, at least for a time. While I came in applying for one job and was hired for something entirely different, there's been a lot about the past year that has been a great "fit". I've met some wonderful talented and inspiring people and there have been many high points.

Right now I am really hoping that I will be able to apply for and receive funding for a pilot project that would link some literacy programs in India with classrooms in Canada. The goal would be to share stories about children's daily lives between Canadian children and some of the poorest kids in India. The kids in WLC tutoring programs cannot afford to attend regular schooling.

So my starting point is Now.

Maybe along the way how I got here from there might be relevant.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Why Bread and Roses?

As I try to explain my resume to people that I've never met before, I frequently find myself going back to the old labour song, "Bread and Roses".

I've worked for about equal number of years in social justice/political advocacy roles and in arts management. To me these activities are two sides of the same coin.

We toil for our daily bread but the soul needs roses too.